Tag Archives: natural law

Dialogue, Peace, and Evangelization

11 Mar

Pope Francis5Pope Francis devotes a section of his apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, or “EG”) to the role of social dialogue in the promotion of peace (EG 238-58). He considers this a significant part of the Church’s overall mission to carry the Gospel out to all the world. He cites three specific areas of dialogue: with states, with society (including cultures and sciences), and with believers who are not members of the Catholic Church (EG 238).

The Church supports the efforts of the State to promote peace in ways that respond to the dignity of the human person and promote the common good (EG 241). While this may sound too grandiose for the average believer, the Holy Father also reminds us that every baptized person is called to be “a peacemaker and a credible witness to a reconciled life” (EG 239).

Dialogue between science and faith is also part of the work of evangelization at the service of peace. The Holy Father calls for a synthesis of empirical science and other areas of knowledge, especially philosophy and theology. The new evangelization must be attentive to scientific advances and “shed on them the light of faith and the natural law” (EG 242). The Church delights in the progress and potential of science. Problems occur only when science—or faith—exceeds the limit of its respective competence. At that point, the issue is not one of truth, but of ideologies that can only block “the path to authentic, serene, and productive dialogue” (EG 243).

When the Holy Father speaks of “other believers” (EG 238) he is referring to both ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. He sees ecumenism as “a contribution to the unity of the human family” (EG 245). He is painfully conscious of the counter-witness of division among Christians, especially in Asia and Africa. In light of the vast numbers of people who have not received the Gospel, “our commitment to a unity that helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelization” (EG 246).

Pope Francis accords Judaism a special place among non-Christian religions. After all, the Church looks upon the Jewish faith as one of the sacred roots of our own Christian identity (cf. Romans 11:16-18). The Holy Father cites our current friendship with the Jewish people as well as our bitter regret for past persecutions and injustices (EG 248). While we must always proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah, we continue to share the Hebrew Scriptures with them as well as many ethical convictions (EG 249).

The Pope says that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as for other religious communities” (EG 250). Here he stresses the close relationship between dialogue and proclamation. We need to be clear and joyful regarding our own convictions and identity, while also being open to understanding those of other faiths in a spirit of candor and goodwill (EG 251). Pope Francis singles out dialogue with Islam as especially important in our time. One comment he made that I found especially eye-opening was this: “[O]ur respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (EG 253).

The Holy Father concludes this section with some consideration of religious freedom, a fundamental human right that includes “the freedom to choose the religion that one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public” (EG 255).  Redefining religious liberty as a right that only applies in private consciences and inside church buildings is “a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism” (EG 255). Respect can be given to non-believers without silencing the convictions of the believing majority. Such a heavy-handed approach can only feed resentment, not  tolerance and peace.

In all of this, the Holy Father is relentlessly stressing the social dimension of the Gospel, which beckons all of us to “get our shoes dirty”—to boldly bring the Gospel to the world in words, attitudes, and deeds (EG 258).

The Truth Will Set Us Free

28 May

Murray on TIME coverAfter a brief hiatus, we now continue our series on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) during this Year of Faith with the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). While the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy may be considered the most controversial document of Vatican II in terms of its implementation, Dignitatis Humanae is probably the most controversial in terms of what it actually teaches, and it is a “front-burner” issue for the Church today.

The reason Dignitatis Humanae is so controversial are that it (a) reflects new and diverse responses to changing social conditions (notably the contribution of American theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J.) and (b) strikes a very different tone from a series of papal documents from Gregory XVI to Pius XI on the social kingship of Christ and the desirability of a “confessional state” (i.e., what we would call a “Catholic country”).

Let me try to simplify the issue for us: “Religious liberty” looks one way when the Catholic faith is in power and most people are Catholic or at least Christian, and the issue is how to apply religious truth in a manner that is both robust and yet respectful of the rights of non-believers. It looks another way when, as is more typical in our experience, the Catholic faith is a minority position and the issue is to protect the fundamental rights of individuals and religious entities. As the first section Dignitatis Humanae teaches, “Religious freedom, . . . which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.”

Further complicating the situation is American jurisprudence, which today, in my judgment, improperly treats the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment as meaning that there must be an impenetrable wall between Church and State—and really between religion and public life. This distorted emphasis on the Establishment Clause to the detriment of the “Free Exercise” clause has led secularists to narrow the scope of “religious liberty” to what happens in the church building as they bully believers and churches out of the public square.

Exhibit “A” is the HHS mandate.

Another complicating aspect of religious liberty is the widespread misunderstanding of conscience, especially in dissident Catholic circles. I’ve addressed that issue here. The Catechism (no. 1792) acknowledges that “a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” is a “source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.” Even more to the point, Catechism, no. 2039 teaches that “personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.”

We should not be forced to act against our conscience. By the same token, we are obliged to form our consciences well. Acting according to the dictates of conscience is about doing what is truly good, not whatever I feel like doing at the moment.

Let’s now briefly look at a “top ten” list of principles of religious liberty taken from the opening sections of Dignitatis Humanae. This is not an exhaustive list, but it contains principles that always apply even as cultural conditions change:

(1) We ordinarily cannot be forced to act contrary to our religious beliefs.

“All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (no. 2)

(2) Religious liberty is an innate right known to us through both faith and reason.

“The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” (no. 2)

(3) Governments have the duty to respect religious liberty.

“This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” (no. 2)

(4) We must seek the truth.

“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons–that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility–that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” (no. 2)

(5) We must strive to live the truth.

“They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.” (no. 2)

(6) God’s law is written on the human heart.

“The highest norm of human life is the divine law–eternal, objective and universal–whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.” (no. 3)

(7) The truth must be sought freely.

“Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.” (no. 3)

(8) We must adhere to the truth.

“As the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.” (no. 3)

(9) Personal and societal harm comes from suppressing the free exercise of religion.

“On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.” (no. 3)

(10) Religious freedom applies to religious communities and groups (i.e., the Church), and not just individual believers.

“The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.” (no. 4)

Church Teaching Is Not Negotiable!

6 Feb

traffic ticketIn our legal system, if we don’t like a law, we push for new laws and elect new legislators who might listen to us. When it comes to interpreting and applying existing laws, we hire the most skilled attorneys we can afford, whose job is not to seek the truth but to present our side most effectively. Even if we lose at trial, we can still pursue our cause through various avenues of appeal, all the while using the media to put pressure on the government.

We have many “disciplines” in the Church which are “positive law,” meaning that they’re the product of human invention. While Church leaders in general make the best pastoral judgments they can, such disciplines may turn out to be good, bad, or somewhere in between, and they may be in effect for a week or for 100 years or more.

Church disciplines have been subject of “lobbying,” especially in our time, from altar girls and Communion on the hand to a wider, more readily available access to the extraordinary (Tridentine) form of the Roman rite. The laity have the right to be heard on such matters, though in the meantime the current discipline calls forth our obedience and filial respect for the Church.

However, when it comes to the deposit of faith–what the Church teaches in the area of faith and morals–American democratic concepts simply are out of place. No matter how many petitions are signed, no matter how fervently and repeatedly dissent is allowed to foment and lead people astray, what God has revealed through Christ as proclaimed by the Church is not up for grabs.

Some dissenters express frustration that some “celibate old man” in Rome can say that I have to believe and act in a certain way. Clearly there is a misunderstanding of authority here. The Pope does have considerable juridical or legal power, but in matters of faith and morals his authority is that of guardian and mouthpiece, not scriptwriter or legislator.

For example, if someone has a problem with the Immaculate Conception, the problem is not with Pope Pius IX, but with the way God has chosen to come among us to save us. If someone has a problem with the Church’s teaching on contraception, the problem is not with Pope Paul VI, but with the way God has created the human person and human society.

If I were given a speeding ticket and appeared before a judge to contest it, what would happen if my defense proceeded as follows: Continue reading

More Than a Feeling

27 Jun

For some of us, our first encounter with conscience may have been the movie Pinocchio, where the wise Jiminy Cricket exhorts our hero to “let conscience be [his] guide.” For others, it may have been an elementary catechism class, where we learned that conscience is a “little voice” inside us helping us to sort out right from wrong. Whatever the source, animated by Disney or supernatural grace—or likely a combination of the two—we learned early on that it is a very good and even necessary thing to follow our conscience.

As we develop a more mature understanding of Christian morality, we still recognize our fundamental obligation to follow our conscience. The Church teaches that conscience is that privileged place within us where God speaks to us. Conscience gives us the framework for making good, loving choices and shunning evil impulses and temptations. Even on a natural level we encounter the workings of conscience, as pagans and Christians alike have experienced a sense “deep down” that something just is—or is not—the right thing to do.

For Christians, of course, conscience goes beyond those elements of the natural law that are accessible to every human heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15): The more our conscience is formed by the teachings of Christ and his Church, the more our conscience becomes finely attuned to all that is true, good, and beautiful.

And conscience is not merely a window to the natural law, but a place where we actually encounter the living God. The Gospel warns us against professing belief in the Lord while failing to do what he says (Lk. 6:46). What good would it be, for example, for our conscience to tell us it is wrong to defraud our creditors if we have no intention to act upon such guidance? It would be like driving at night without using our headlights. Such a culpably reckless approach would inevitably lead to disaster.

Therefore, it is clear that we have a serious duty to do what we believe is right in God’s eyes, and this entails heeding our conscience. As the Church teaches, our dignity and even our eternal destiny lie in our obedience to God’s voice within us Continue reading